Dance Theatre, Taipei National University of the Arts, Taipei, Taiwan; March 28, 2015

Hsiao Yi-han with Chiu Chu-en as the traveller in Helen Lai's Plaza X.  Photo Zhang Xiao-xiong

Hsiao Yi-han with Chiu Chu-en as the traveller in Helen Lai’s Plaza X.
Photo Zhang Xiao-xiong

David Mead

This year’s Focus Dance Company (焦點舞團), the graduate company of Taipei National University of the Arts (國立臺北藝術大學) featured a selection of student choreography alongside excerpts from the classic Plaza X (PlazaX與異變街道) by noted Hong Kong choreographer Helen Lai (黎海寧), and the much loved late Lo Man-fei’s (羅曼菲) Patrol (梭巡) in their 2015 production, Shuttling 10 (梭巡X)

Plaza X was conceived by Lai after she discovered Alan Lightman’s book, Einstein’s Dreams, a fictional collage of stories dreamed by Einstein in which he imagines many possible worlds including one where time is circular, bending back on itself so that triumphs and failures are constantly revisited; one where time stands still, a place visited by lovers and parents clinging to their children; and another, depicted in the opening scenes, where people rush about frantically, trying to capture time, which takes the form of a nightingale trapped under a bell jar, so they can make their lives stand still. Unusually, when first staged in 2000 at the Hong Kong arts Festival, it was as a mix of ice skating and contemporary dance.

Lai takes up the themes of Lightman’s novel. The dance that results is not so much an enigma wrapped up in a mystery as a whole host of them. Performed to selections from Bach’s Cello Suites, the action takes place in a strange plaza; a bleak, timeless sort of place where the imagination can run riot, where people meet and pass through; a place where secrets and memories are revealed through dance, although quite what those remembrances are is never revealed. The images she creates in this collision of the real and unreal are beautiful yet somewhat haunting, even a little disturbing.

When Michiko Kakutani reviewed the novel for the New York Times, he wrote that if Einstein’s Dreams were a painting, it would have been painted by Magritte. And sure enough, linking Lai’s various tableaux together is a Magritte-like suited and hatted traveller, complete with suitcase, who can be seen as just that or whose suitcase in particular can be seen as a metaphor for the memories of the others.

As the traveller, Huang Po-kai (黃柏凱) at the matinee and Chiu Chen-en (邱主恩) in the evening were both suitably totally distanced; a ghostly presence rather than a real person. It’s a truly difficult role to pull off, not least because most of the time it calls for zero self-promotion, and while not quite an indifference to everything else that’s happening on stage, certainly a detachment. In the final duet of the piece, I did sense a connection between Chiu and Lin Chi-hsuan (林季萱), however. Did he see himself as a memory of hers rather than merely as a support for other thoughts?

Elsewhere, a special mention for Hsiao Yi-han (蕭翊涵), who not only projected great emotion in the main duet at the matinee, but also shone in the subsequent ensemble section, even though dancing right upstage.

Lo Man-fei's Patrol. Photo Zhang Xiao-xiong

Lo Man-fei’s Patrol.
Photo Zhang Xiao-xiong

Fears, memories and secrets don’t appear to be far from the surface in Lo’s Patrol either. Although it’s very much an ensemble piece, it’s one where the ensemble appears to represent the individual – and all their personal emotions. Perhaps that’s not surprising since it dates from 2000, and a time of difficulties in her personal life.

Most powerful is the moment when the whole cast of fifteen walk towards the audience, as if drawn by something we can’t see. They sit. They look out, faces set hard, before retreating once more. It ends oddly, with no resolution, sort of leaving everything hanging in mid-air. But perhaps that’s he she felt.

Danced at both the afternoon and evening shows, the former, with an all-female cast, was the most powerful. For all the extra that the men brought to the evening, their presence took away more than it added; something I think to do with the clash of physicality. Maybe an all-male cast would work as well as an all-female one. It would be interesting to see.

Although the dancing and technique was as good as Focus Dance always is, as is usually the way, the student choreographies were variable. Much of the dance itself, and indeed much of the staging, tended to blur into one – especially at the matinee. Now, I will admit to quite liking dark, moody lighting, and greys and blacks in costumes, but even I would prefer that I didn’t get it pretty much all the time.

Perhaps it’s the European in me, but I also like to see some individuality. It is easy to go overboard with personal expression, and I do sometimes despair at what often seems to be the almost total focus on it, and the corresponding lack of ability to dance together in the sense of dancing in unison, that I often see at similar performances from the London schools, but this was at the other end of the extreme. Eyes and faces are an important part of human communication – in dance as well as elsewhere – but here, while the steps were all there, and all in time with the music, here there were too many blank looking faces.

Essence-Bounce-Disruptive. Photo Zhang Xiao-xiong

Essence-Bounce-Disruptive by Chiang Chiu-yi.
Photo Zhang Xiao-xiong

The stand-out student piece at the matinee, simply because it dared to be different, was Chang Chin’s (張勤) Psychosomatic (神經之差). And boy was it different! After a feast of backs and greys, designer Chen Wen-liang (陳玟良) suddenly presents us with bright red; and weird bright red at that! Imagine for a moment one of those squishy micro-bead travel pillows, a red one. Now think of it super-large and a weird shape, wrapped around the body. Add to that a skull-cap, a dress or trousers and vest, all in the same bright red, and you have the scene. I can’t say I enjoyed the choreography particularly, a bit too quirky and off the wall, and too much loose shaking arms, but it certainly suggested a physical disorder of body and mind. Still, ten out of ten all round for imagination.

The evening programme was a bit more varied and had the better choreography. Essence-Bounce-Disruptive (本-彈-裂) – a perfect title – by Chiang Chiu-yi (江秋怡) proved the perfect hors d’oeuvre, setting things up nicely. Yes, there is more than a hint of Hofesh Shechter to it at times – bent legs, loose raised arms, dancing in a circle – but elsewhere it is bright and playful. It had a welcome energy to it, helped along by Tom Ze’s Latin music.

Reflection (影) by Hsiao Yi-han (蕭翊涵), the evening’s ballet contribution, features much neat patterning and use of space. The dance itself is clearly Forsythe-inspired. Full of the expected jagged angles and sharp movement it was well-performed. A special mention for the men, who leapt with great aplomb. High marks too for the costumes (Hsieh Wen-hsun, 謝汶焄, and Chu Kuo-jun, 朱國榮). The grey halter-neck leotards for the women and simple black tights for the men work a treat, showing off the dance and the dancers’ bodies perfectly.

Hsiao Yi-han's Reflection.  Photo Zhang Xiao-xiong

Hsiao Yi-han’s Reflection.
Photo Zhang Xiao-xiong

The success of Reflection makes it odd that the afternoon’s ballet, Float (浮垢), also by Hsiao but in partnership with Chui Chu-en was so disappointing. It seems to be more about how many weird extensions and gymnastic poses can be achieved by the woman than anything else, with the man there merely to support her. Duets are terribly exposing, and if the technique and choreography isn’t right up to it, or come to that the musicality, it really shows. Maybe it was a one-off, but on this afternoon, it showed.

Best of the other works was the martial arts inspired Heaven (蒼) by Huang Po-kai (黃柏凱), danced in attractive costumes that were a feast of orange and brown, and which again showed good use of space and excellent partner work, while Hsu Chen’s (許辰) Behind the Cold (冷冽之後) included some clever use of a chair, although I couldn’t help feeling that the movement suggesting something rather more light-hearted than the dancers’ faces.

Also on the programmes were Above the Dark River (黑河之上) by Lin Chi-hsuan; Trinity (依附), a second piece by Huang; and Doppelganger (複己) by Chen Tzu-ying (陳姿穎).